Matthew McMeekin, 35, of Bethesda, Md., has spent 14 years working at Rehabilitation Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit sheltered workshop where he and other disabled workers are bused each workday to stuff envelopes, collate files or shrink-wrap products — all for far less than the state minimum wage of $8.25 an hour.
"He's not working there for the money," says his mother, Bebe McMeekin. "He has a job to go to every day for eight hours a day, five days a week. On Fridays he brings home a paycheck. He has a work environment with his friends that he's gotten to know there."
Asked whether he would ever consider working anywhere else, McMeekin says an emphatic "No!" and rattles off the names of all his work friends. His mother says it would be hard for him to get another job considering his limitations and vision problems.
The National Council on Disability has called on the federal government to phase out sheltered workshops, a move some states are already making. Vermont became the first state to end the use of sheltered workshops and subminimum wage employment in 2003.
"Sheltered workshops at least give them some social context and self-esteem, but it is still segregating, not really mainstreaming them," said Stephen Corbin, senior vice president of community impact at Special Olympics. "We prefer a competitive employment situation."
Disability rights groups won a victory on Wednesday when President Barack Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers. The order includes several thousand disabled workers at sheltered workshops run by federal contractors.
At the other end of the spectrum is Ken Melvin, of Crawfordsville, Ind., a truck driver who is among the few intellectually disabled people living independently and working full time at a regular job. Melvin, 45, earns about $50,000 a year making deliveries and pickups. He's married with four children, has been a member of the National Guard and even served in Afghanistan.
"My biggest disability is reading," Melvin says. "I can read something and not understand it until I've read it 18 or 19 times."
Even simple tasks can be hard, such as putting his shoes on. He was 11 years old before he learned to put his clothes on correctly.
But at school, one of his teachers who had a farm helped him learn to drive a tractor, then a truck. He got his commercial driver's license at 19 and has been driving for a living ever since.
"Anyone looking to hire someone with a disability, they are going to get someone that's more determined and more focused because they've got to be," Melvin said.